The Synod Begins

The Catholic Church’s special “Synod on the Middle East” opened today in Rome with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. The purpose is mainly pastoral: to consider how the Church can better live her mission in that region of the world. But the problematic political tensions in the region are also a concern…

By Robert Moynihan

“The great history of evangelization recounted in the Acts of the Apostles begins with the Christian community in the Holy Land. All Christians and people of good will look to this land made holy by the presence of the Lord Jesus, particularly at this time…” —Opening lines from the Lineamenta, the guideline for the Special Bishops’ Synod on “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness,” October 10-24, 2010

“Salvation is universal, but it passes through a specific historical mediation: the mediation of the people of Israel, which goes on to become that of Jesus Christ and the Church.” —Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Opening Mass of the Synod on the Middle East, St. Peter’s Basilica, Sunday, October 10, 2010

“The Door of Life Is Open for Everyone — But It Is a Door…”

 St Peter’s Basilica seemed more “universal” than usual this morning — and also more “particular.”

In fact, the basilica seemed no longer to rise from the soil of Rome, in Western Europe, but rather to have been transported, as if on some magic carpet, to Jerusalem, or Baghdad, or some other city of the near Orient.

Why? Because it was filled with robes, and colors, and head coverings (see photo) which seemed to come out of some scene in the Arabian nights, as 185 bishops from that majestic and troubled region of the world, along with 70 experts and advisors, gathered here from Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and a dozen other countries in the Middle East.

Pope Benedict immediately made clear that the central focus of this meeting is the same as the focus of his entire pontificate, and of the Church herself: simply Jesus Christ, and the salvation Christ brought, and brings.

When we think of the Middle East, Benedict said, when we think of the Holy Land, of Jerusalem, of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus’s body was laid in the tomb, we think of the doorway through which all of human history, and all of human hope, once passed.

When we think of the promise made by God that he would accomplish a universal salvation by means of a covenant, beginning with Abraham, Benedict said, we have hope that all of us may reach that “Promised Land” of peace and abundance.

(Photo, Synod delegates at the Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica this morning. On the right is Patriarch Twal of the Latin-rite Catholic Church in Jerusalem)

And, the Pope continued, the way is not simply to be understood as the possession of an earthly territory, an earthly homeland, an earthly “Promised Land.”

“God is love and wants all men to be part of His life,” Benedict said. “To carry out this plan He, who is One and Triune, creates in the world a mystery of a communion that is human and divine, historical and transcendent: He creates it with the ‘method’ — so to speak — of the covenant, tying himself to men with faithful and inexhaustible love, forming a holy people, that becomes a blessing for all the families of the earth (cf Gen 12:13). Thus He reveals Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (cf Ex 3:6), who wants to lead his people to the ‘land’ of freedom and peace. This ‘land’ is not of this world; the whole of the divine plan goes beyond history, but the Lord wants to build it with men, for men and in men, beginning with the coordinates of space and time in which they live and which He Himself gave them.”

This, in a sense, is the central message of this Synod, already stated beforehand by the Pope in this opening homily.

The message is that the “Promised Land” of freedom and peace to which God wishes to lead “His” people is, yes, “not of this world,” for, as the Pope says, “the whole of the divine plan goes beyond history.”

And yet, at the same time, “the Lord wishes to build it [the Promised Land] with men, for men and in men, beginning with the coordinates of space and time in which they live and which He Himself gave them.”

In these words is an appeal to all those who live in the Holy Land, Jew and Gentile alike, Muslim, Christian and atheist alike, that the “Promised Land” of freedom and peace begin to be built here and now, in this privileged time, our own time, which is the acceptable time, should hearts be open enough to realize it.

The Pope’s Homily

This morning, during a Mass that combined Latin chants with Arabic ones, Pope Benedict formally launched the Synod on the Middle East with the following homily. Here is the complete text:

Venerable Brothers,
illustrious ladies and gentlemen,
dear brothers and sisters!

The Eucharistic celebration, the rendering of thanks to God par excellence, is marked for us today, gathered around the Tomb of Saint Peter, by an extraordinary reason: the grace of seeing gathered together for the first time at a Synod, around the Bishop of Rome and the Universal Shepherd, the bishops of the Middle Eastern region. Such a singular event demonstrates the interest of the whole Church for that precious and beloved part of God’s people who live in the Holy Land and the whole of the Middle East.

Above all, we give thanks to the Lord of history, because he has allowed, despite the often difficult and tormented events, the Middle East to see, from the time of Jesus all the way up to today, a continuity in the presence of Christians.

In those lands, the one Church of Christ is expressed in the variety of liturgical, spiritual, cultural and teaching traditions of the six Venerable Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris, as well as in the Latin tradition.

This fraternal greeting which I direct with great affection to the Patriarchs of each of these wishes to be extended at this time to all the faithful entrusted to their pastoral care in their respective countries as well as in the Diaspora.

On this Sunday, the 28th of Ordinary Time, the Word of God offers a theme for meditation which brings us closer in a meaningful way to the event of the Synod that we open today.

Continued reading of the Gospel of Luke leads us to the story of the healing of the ten lepers, of whom only one, a Samaritan, turns back to thank Jesus. Connected with this text, the first reading, from the Second Book of Kings, tells the story of the healing of Naaman, head of the Aramaean army, another leper, who was cured by immersing himself seven times in the waters of the Jordan River, on the orders of the prophet Eliseus. Naaman too returns to the prophet and, recognizing him as the mediator of God, professes his faith in the one Lord. So two lepers, two non-Jews, who are cured because they believe in the word of God’s messenger. Their bodies are healed, but they are open to faith, and this heals their souls, that is, it saves them.

The Responsorial Psalm sings of this reality:

“Yahweh has made known his saving power,
revealed his saving justice for the nations to see.
Mindful of his faithful love and his constancy to the House of Israel” (Ps 98:2-3).

This then is the theme: salvation is universal, but it passes through a specific historical mediation: the mediation of the people of Israel, which goes on to become that of Jesus Christ and the Church.

The door of life is open for everyone, but this is the point, it is a “door”, that is a definite and necessary passage.

This is summed up in the Pauline formula we heard in the Second Letter to Timothy: “the salvation that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:10). It is the mystery of the universality of Salvation and at the same time of its necessary link with the historical mediation of Christ Jesus, preceded by that of the people of Israel and continued by that of the Church. God is love and wants all men to be part of His life; to carry out this plan He, who is One and Triune, creates in the world a mystery of a communion that is human and divine, historical and transcendent: He creates it with the “method” — so to speak — of the covenant, tying himself to men with faithful and inexhaustible love, forming a holy people, that becomes a blessing for all the families of the earth (cf Gen 12:13). Thus He reveals Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (cf Ex 3:6), who wants to lead his people to the “land” of freedom and peace. This “land” is not of this world; the whole of the divine plan goes beyond history, but the Lord wants to build it with men, for men and in men, beginning with the coordinates of space and time in which they live and which He Himself gave them.

With its own specificity, that which we call the “Middle East”, makes up part of those coordinates. God sees this region of the world, too, from a different perspective, one might say, “from on high”: it is the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the land of the Exodus and the return from exile; the land of the Temple and of the Prophets, the land in which the Only Begotten Son of Mary was born, lived, died, and rose from the dead; the cradle of the Church, established in order to carry Christ’s Gospel to the ends of the earth.

And we too, as believers, look at the Middle East with this view, from the perspective of the history of salvation. It is this internal point of view which guided me during Apostolic visits to Turkey, the Holy Land–Jordan, Israel, Palestine–and Cyprus, where I was able to experience firsthand the joys and concerns of the Christian communities.

It was for this reason, too, that I willingly accepted the proposal of the Patriarchs and Bishops to convoke a Synodal Assembly to reflect together, in light of Sacred Scripture and Church traditions, on the present as well as the future of the faithful and populations of the Middle East.

Looking at that part of the world from God’s perspective means recognizing in it the “cradle” of a universal design of salvation in love, a mystery of communion which becomes true in freedom and thus asks man for a response. Abraham, the prophets, and the Virgin Mary are the protagonists of this response which, however, has its completion in Jesus Christ, son of that same land, yet descended from Heaven. From Him, from his Heart and his Spirit was born the Church, which is a pilgrim in this world, yet belongs to Him.

The Church was established to be a sign and an instrument of the unique and universal saving project of God among men; She fulfils this mission simply by being herself, that is, “Communion and witness”, as it says in the theme of this Synodal Assembly which opens today, referring to Luke’s famous definition of the first Christian community: “The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). Without communion there can be no witness: the life of communion is truly the great witness. Jesus said it clearly: “It is by your love for one another, that everyone will recognize you as my disciples” (Jn 13:35). This communion is the same life of God which is communicated in the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ. It is thus a gift, not something which we ourselves must build through our own efforts.

And it is precisely because of this that it calls upon our freedom and waits for our response: communion always requires conversion, just as a gift is better if it is welcomed and utilized.

In Jerusalem the first Christians were few. Nobody could have imagined what was going to take place. And the Church continues to live on that same strength which enabled it to begin and to grow. Pentecost is the original event but also a permanent dynamism, and the Synod of Bishops is a privileged moment in which the grace of Pentecost may be renewed in the Church’s journey, so that the Good News may be announced openly and heard by all peoples.

Therefore, the reason for this synodal assembly is mainly a pastoral one. While not being able to ignore the delicate and at times dramatic social and political situation of some countries, the Pastors of the Middle Eastern Churches wish to concentrate on the aspects of their own mission.

As regards this, the Instrumentum laboris, elaborated by a Presynodal Council whose members we thank for their work, underlined these ecclesial finalities of the Assembly, pointing out that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it wishes to re-enliven communion of the Catholic Church in the Middle East.

First of all within each Church, between all its members: Patriarch, Bishop, priests, religious persons, persons of consecrated life and the laity. And, thereby, in the relationships with the other Churches.

Ecclesial life, corroborated in this way, will see the development of very positive fruits in the ecumenical path with the other Churches and ecclesial Communities present in the Middle East.

This occasion is also propitious to constructively continue the dialogue with Jews, to whom we are tied by an indissoluble bond, the lengthy history of the Covenant, as we are with the Muslims.

Also, the workings of the Synodal assembly are oriented to the witness of Christians on a personal, family and social level. This requires the reinforcing of their Christian identity through the Word of God and the Sacraments.

We all hope that the faithful feel the joy in living in the Holy Land, a land blessed by the presence and by the Paschal Mystery of the Lord Jesus Christ. Over the centuries those Places attracted multitudes of pilgrims and even men and women in religious communities, who have considered it a great privilege to be able to live and bear witness in the land of Jesus. Despite the difficulties, the Christians in the Holy Land are called to enliven their consciousness of being the living stones of the Church in the Middle East, at the holy Places of our salvation.

However, living in a dignified manner in one’s own country is above all a fundamental human right: therefore, the conditions of peace and justice, which are necessary for the harmonious development of all those living in the region, should be promoted. Therefore all are called to give their personal contribution: the international community, by supporting a stable path, loyal and constructive, towards peace; those most prevalent religions in the region, in promoting the spiritual and cultural values that unite men and exclude any expression of violence. Christians will continue to contribute not only with the work of social promotion, such as institutes of education and health, but above all with the spirit of the Evangelical Beatitudes, which enliven the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation. In this commitment, they will always have the support of the entire Church, as is solemnly attested by the presence here of the Delegates of the Episcopacies of other continents.
Dear friends, let us entrust the workings of the Synodal Assembly for the Middle East to the many Saints of that blessed land; let us invoke upon it the constant protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that the coming days of prayer, of reflection and of fraternal communion may be the harbingers of the good fruits for the present and for the future of the beloved Middle Eastern populations. To them we address a hopeful greeting with all our heart: “Peace to you, peace to your family, peace to all that is yours!” (1 Sam 25:6).

Participation from North America

There are 12 bishops from the United States and Canada who are participating in the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East.

Here is a report by Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service on these bishops:

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Of the 185 voting members of the special Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, 12 are bishops who minister in the United States and Canada.

Like the synod membership as a whole, most of the North American participants are bishops of the Eastern Catholic Churches: Melkite, Maronite, Chaldean, Syrian, Armenian or Coptic.

The full list of participants in the Oct. 10-24 synod was released at the Vatican Oct. 8 during a press briefing by Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops.

Pope Benedict XVI named Msgr. Robert L. Stern, general secretary of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, to be a voting member of the synod.

And three Latin-rite bishops from North America are participating: Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit, and Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto.

More North American participants are involved because of their ministry in Rome. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is a synod member, as are Cardinal John P. Foley, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, and Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, prefect of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature.

The other North American members of the synod are:

— Syrian Bishop Yousif Habash of Our Lady of Deliverance of Newark, N.J.

— Melkite Bishop Ibrahim M. Ibrahim of Saint-Sauveur of Montreal.

— Melkite Bishop Cyrille S. Bustros of Newton, Mass.

— Maronite Bishop Joseph Khoury of Saint-Maron of Montreal.

— Maronite Bishop Robert J. Shaheen of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles.

— Maronite Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of St. Maron of Brooklyn, N.Y.

— Chaldean Bishop Sarhad Y. Jammo of St. Peter the Apostle of San Diego.

— Chaldean Bishop Ibrahim N. Ibrahim of St. Thomas the Apostle of Detroit.

— Armenian Bishop Manuel Batakian of Our Lady of Nareg in New York.

Benedictine Father Mark Sheridan, a U.S. member of the International Association for Coptic Studies, was named an expert at the synod.

Are Christians Leaving the Middle East?

The Reuters news agency on Thursday, October 7, ran an interview with Franciscan Father David Jaeger, a convert from Judaism who became a Roman Catholic priest in 1986, and who is a respected canon lawyer. He was part of the Vatican team that negotiated diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994 and is part of the Vatican team that is still ironing out the details of that accord.

He spoke to Reuters and Reuters Television about the upcoming Mideast synod in the atrium of Antonianum University in Rome. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

What do you expect from the synod?

Father David Jaeger: I think it is intended to be a very significant step forward in the development of the witness of the Church in the Middle East. Synods are convened not simply, or not necessarily, in response to a current affairs concerns but as a moment for the Church to grow, in faithfulness and in effectiveness of witness.

The moment in the Middle East is particularly appropriate for this further development… I don’t think people in the West appreciate to what extent the thematics of the Synod are totally new to so much of the Church in the Middle East. Religious freedom some decades ago was not even a known concept. It had never been experienced in 13 centuries. It had always been presupposed that it could not be attained, yet now it is being spoken of in the preparatory documents of the Synod as a serious subject, not as something already existing of course, but as something realistically to be looked forward to.

The whole discussion of the civic duty of the Christian, the Christian as citizen, the Christian communities as actors in the national lives of the countries where they live, this is totally new for the region as a whole. For 13 centuries, Christians in the Middle East had been made to live strictly in kinds of socio-political ghettos, not a physical ones necessarily, but socio-political and legal ones, and it was a given that general society was something else, in which as Christians they had no part. Maybe individuals did manage to insert themselves into politics in different countries, of course, but that the idea that as a Christian, as a Christian community, you had to participate in the formation of a national culture, in the development of the national political culture too, these are all new insights in that region. These are all (examples) of Vatican II coming finally to fruition in that region too, so it is a very exiting moment for the Church.

There is great concern about a continuing exodus of Christians from the region. What can be done about that?

Father Jaeger: …The situation of Christians cannot be divorced from that of the countries where they live. In other words, we cannot simply say there is a problem of emigration of Christians from a given area and the Middle East is by no means uniform in this respect at all. So what are we going to do about it? We always say that and we always try to do a great many things with a great deal of sacrifice — provide some housing in some areas, especially in the Middle East, try to increase the availability of jobs in certain areas, but whatever the Church as such can do, and does and will do, while being necessary as well as beneficial, is a drop in a bucket.

Essentially, Christians leave because the countries where they find themselves, their native countries, do not offer conditions of security and possibilities for prosperity, opportunities for their families, for various reasons. Therefore, the only overall solution would be the development of their home countries, within the region as a whole. In other words, if we speak of the Holy Land, and specifically of the occupied Palestinian territories, where we do know, to be quite concrete about it, in recent years there has been a very considerable emigration of Christians, say, from the Bethlehem area.

There is nothing ultimately we can do about this as Church, however much we spend on works of social solidarity or housing or jobs or whatever, because they leave because they live in a very difficult situation, as their Muslim neighbours do, under conditions of belligerent occupation which have lasted much more than the lifetime of so many of them, having been in place since 1967.

This is an objective fact. It has nothing to do the rights or wrongs of the conflicts in the area, about who attacked first and who responded and who attacked again and who responded. It has nothing to do with that. The objective fact is that the resulting situation for the people of that area is this, whoever is responsible or not for it. Under those conditions, a family — to say it rather provocatively — that can emigrate to the free world and doesn’t do so, may not be responsible at all towards itself and the children.

It is often easier for Christians to go than for Muslims because they will find it easier to integrate in the Western world. They often already have a great number of families, of extended family members, settled in the U.S. or Canada or Australia and so on. The Palestinians are very family oriented, extended family oriented, in the sense of a great generosity and warmth towards their kin. They will receive them well and help them integrate. Nothing can change that except peace. This is why I believe that the greatest charity that is required, with regard to the Christians in the Holy Land and for the Middle East in general, is peace.

It is for Catholics everywhere in the free world to press their respective governments to be truly pro-active in assisting the coming about of peace and security in the Holy Land. This is the only remedy and it is not within our power as Church to create. It is within our power to encourage, to call for, but there is nothing we can ultimately do unless the situation becomes stabilised for everyone in the land.

Do you fear that Israel may become the whipping boy at the synod?

Father Jaeger: I reject this whole way of looking at the Synod. The Synod is not there to take positions on any political questions, for or against any country. The Church is not there for that in the first place, least of all the Holy See. The Holy See and the assemblies it convenes, such as the Synod, and the pronouncements of the Pope do not intervene, by their very nature, in temporal disputes between nations and states. They give moral judgments on the moral dimensions of temporal issues, in the name of God, in the name of God’s moral law, in the name of humanity.

Absolutely, inevitably, when the Holy Father, or any other truly authoritative expression of the Church speak out on moral judgment and human affairs, there is always someone whom it secretly or openly pleases and there is always someone it displeases. Because obviously, the result will be that someone is said to have been doing good and someone else will be said not to have been doing good. But this is absolutely indifferent.

The judgments are rendered, the assessments are voiced, objectively, without prejudice, without regards to persons and without regards to nations. So it is profoundly distorted to say that the Synod could speak in favour of one country or against one country. That is not the perspective at all.

In Other News: New Vatican Office to Be Announced Tuesday

Vatican Radio reports that on Tuesday, October 12, there will be a press conference to present the Motu Proprio Ubicumque et Semper regarding the newly established Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. The document will be presented by Archbishop Salvatore “Rino” Fisichella, who was recently appointed as the first President of the new Council.

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